US-Cuba relations still precarious despite deal

The Stars and Stripes fly on the street opposite the former seat of government, El Capitolio. Photograph: Getty
The Stars and Stripes fly on the street opposite the former seat of government, El Capitolio. Photograph: Getty
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EVEN as Americans look forward to buying Cohibas with their Amex cards, US intransigence continues to crush Cuba, writes Brian Wilson

ON THE drive in from Jose Marti airport to downtown Havana, my driver observes that it’s cooler than usual due to a cold wind blowing down from the United States.

A mural of revolutionary leader Ernesto Che Guevara. Picture: Getty

A mural of revolutionary leader Ernesto Che Guevara. Picture: Getty

At any other point in the past 50-odd years, he might have been talking in political metaphor. Now the comment is purely climatic. There is a very long way to go but the first breezes of liberalisation in US policy towards Cuba are beginning to be felt though it takes a seasoned visitor to discern the practical impacts.

Last week, for example, US visitors to Cuba were able to take cigars home with them legally for the first time since the economic blockade was introduced in 1962. The evening before the blockade came into force, John F Kennedy sent his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, round Washington to buy up 1,200 of his favourite Petit Upmanns – an act of hypocrisy which Fidel Castro was still recounting half a century later.

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As part of President Barack Obama’s raising of travel restrictions, US citizens can leave with up to $400 worth of goods including $100 in tobacco and alcohol. It is a cautious first step which is hardly going to transform the Cuban economy. But after so long, it is at least a step in the direction of common sense and normalisation.

Within another couple of weeks, the departing Americans should be able to pay for these souvenirs using their credit cards, as the US banking embargo is lifted on individuals, though not yet on businesses. Using American Express to buy Cohiba cigars in Havana begins to conjure up a little bit of symbolism which suggests change is really starting to happen.

Incidentally, British banks are still slavishly following the American line while their counterparts in other EU countries are not. A friend who has business dealings with Cuba but keeps his personal account entirely separate has just been told by a leading British bank that he will have to close it after 35 years, because of his Cuban involvement. Presumably when the Americans say it’s OK to jump, our own banks will timorously follow.

Havana’s hotels are already bursting at the seams and, as has been the case for several years, many of the occupants are from the United States. It is a bit of a myth that Americans cannot visit Cuba as the accents in the hotel lobbies confirm. Travel is allowed by Washington so long as it is under headings like family ties, educational, religious or humanitarian purposes.

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President Obama’s initial measures expand the number of exempt headings while leaving in place the general travel ban – part of the battery of embargo legislation that would require Congressional approval to repeal. All the American airlines are now discussing the reintroduction of scheduled services and the first such flights between New York and Havana are due to start next month. The number of American visitors should double this year to over a million.

The flourishing tourism business is abetted by a widespread desire to “get there before it changes”. In truth, there is not a lot of need to rush. This is going to be a long, slow process and the scale of investment required to make a real difference to the Cuban economy and infrastructure is not going to happen any time soon.

When it does, it will be at a pace dictated by the Cubans and not at the behest of Washington alone. The Cuban government welcomes the mood of détente but has absolutely no intention of being passive in the process. Cuba has survived for a long time in the face of Washington’s vindictiveness and the desire for a sensible relationship does not mean that it will open the economic or political floodgates.

This is already being made clear at many levels. For example, the decision by Obama to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba is not without its complications and conditions from the Havana end. Absurdly, Cuba is still on a US State Department list of “state sponsors of terrorism” along with North Korea and Iran. This is the rationale that underpins many of the financial sanctions which Washington imposes.

Obama has asked John Kerry to review Cuba’s presence on that list and he is universally expected to recommend its removal within the next few months. Meanwhile, the Cubans – who find this “terror state” designation deeply offensive – may tell Washington that diplomatic relations can wait until then. The appointment of an ambassador will then be subject to Congressional approval and that is where much of the political grandstanding in Washington will be focused.

Discussions around all of these tricky issues are going on behind the scenes and there is a will on both sides to find ways of addressing them without stalling the momentum for change. The language used by Washington is very important. As far as the Cubans are concerned, this is about ending an illegal blockade which has crippled their economy and imposed great hardships upon their people. It is not about the internal affairs of Cuba.

The more the Obama administration tries to appease hard-line domestic critics by suggesting otherwise, the greater the determination of the Cubans to stick strictly to protocol. Yet neither side wants this opportunity to founder on the rocks of rhetoric or ideology. There is an acute awareness that Obama has less than two years left in office and any change not made irreversible within that timescale could fall victim to the veto or disinterest of a future president, particularly a Republican one.

That said, party divisions within Congress are by no means clear cut. In the last 20 years, there have been Republican governors and senators, particularly from the wheat states, around town, desperate for access to a market on their doorstep. The US is already the second biggest exporter of food to Cuba, under various dispensations, but there are many American interests ­with a vested interest in ­normalising commercial ­relationships.

The fact that Cuba imports around 80 per cent of its food, at a crippling cost to its economy, is a bleak reminder of how effective half a century of economic attrition can be. For 30 of these years, Cuba was sheltered from the storm by an alliance of necessity, far more than of ideology, with the Soviet Union. When that disappeared overnight, Cuba faced its most desperate period from which it has slowly recovered with help from tourism, the high price of nickel and its oil-for-doctors and teachers deal with Venezuela.

None of that has prevented the decline of investment-starved infrastructure and agriculture. Cuba was once the world’s biggest sugar producers at eight million tonnes a year. That figure fell to barely a million tonnes and is rising slowly. Cuba could again be an exporter of food to the region. But vast acreages have fallen into disuse because the blockade ensures there is little money to invest in the equipment and technology the soil cries out for.

Economic reforms introduced by Raoul Castro have created tens of thousands of small businesses. There is a real sense of what could be achieved in more normal circumstances. But the fundamental challenges cannot be addressed until it is possible for investment to take place on a scale that remains unat­tainable until the blockade is lifted. And that decision remains in the hands of the US Congress.

Indeed, there has been a paradoxical effect of moves towards liberalisation. The closer it is perceived to be, the greater the American vested interest in making life difficult for others who want to get there first. Therefore, particularly via the banking system and with the help of compliant governments, they continue to bully anyone with any trace of American economic involvement into not doing business with Cuba.

The incremental changes now going on, and momentum within the United States itself, may eventually prevail. For the time being, the counter-productive cruelty of the American blockade can only be nibbled at and not erased. There are very few Americans in these hotel lobbies who would dissent from the view that Obama is on the right track but also that Congress should respond by abandoning the whole apparatus of economic persecution.

As the waves break over the Malecon, the great boulevard along Havana’s seafront which is now a Unesco World Heritage site, they might also recall at this critical moment in American policy-making that if it had not been for the revolution, the whole lot was due to be demolished to make way for a ghastly vision which was then transferred instead to the Nevada desert and named Las Vegas.

That is a living reminder of why Cuba will never offer an open door to the Americans – as opposed to the civilised relationship built on mutual respect which President Obama has pointed the way ­towards but cannot himself ­deliver.

• Former Labour minister Brian Wilson is chairman of Havana Energy, a company promoting renewable energy in Cuba